The write stuff

18 Nov

You may have heard of the latest marketing foray into the area of gendered writing products (e.g. here and here) – the ‘Pencils for her’ on sale at a department store near you. These pink beauties bring back memories of Bic’s much ridiculed ‘Pen for her’ and their tribute to South African Women’s Day. As I tweeted when I discovered these latest lovely pencils – they’re perfect for using at your #headdesk …

In the spirit of disbelief encouraged by pencils which are not only pink but emblazoned with such woman-friendly slogans as ‘Buy the shoes!’ and ‘Glitter &Bling’ – oh, so that’s what we’re made of – and the wonderful concept that is ‘Girl Boss’ (because we all know that women are too raddled and/or busy with children to be credible at work …) I decided it was only fair to find out if there is in fact such a thing as a ‘Pencil for him’ .

I did a quick tour of the internet and found that gender equality is alive after all – the company responsible for ‘Pencils for her’ does indeed produce a set of  ‘Pencils for him’. And how do these pencils look? Well, like default pencils – they’re not even blue! – just classic wood tones for the traditional look of the empowered writer. Apparently though, this male selection comes in blue packaging, so no awkward crossgender mistakes might be made to embarrass the lucky recipient.

And what, I hear you cry are the uplifting slogans on these icons of literary machismo? They include: ‘Hell yeah!’ ‘Smooth’ and ‘You’re welcome’ – truly the gift that keeps on giving. Somewhat bafflingly the men’s pack also includes two ‘Best in show’ – perhaps because men are so dull they couldn’t think of anything else to say – or maybe the man in your life has more than one person he wants to impress with his winning ways. Or perhaps these are giveaways to compliment those displaying sufficient ‘Glitter & Bling’ – one shudders to think really …

And thinking is not much in evidence in marketing like this – it’s tempting to say that it’s about time that product designers sharpened up their ideas so that I’m not left wishing to erase all traces of their sex-stereotyped world . Unfortunately ‘use of this pencil is not defined by gender’ is too long to fit on the bespoke pencil range. Let’s just hope this ‘him and her’ writing stuff does not become a staple. Writing implements are for free expression by all. I rest my (pencil) case.



Fertile ground for change

1 Nov

It’s a familiar scene: a woman in her thirties without children attends a social gathering, and when the topic of conversation turns to babies, eyes turn to her. Has she thought of having them? Is she ‘more of a career woman’? And it’s only a matter of time before the phrase ‘biological clock’ comes up. There’s a common understanding that women’s fertility is time-limited, and that as we age, the chances of conception and childbirth fall. Strangely absent from these discussions are men – sometimes even as they stand there beside the thirtysomething woman…

There’s been a lot of talk again recently about egg freezing (e.g. here and here), the process through which women can have eggs extracted and stored frozen until the conditions are right for her to consider starting a family. Such technology was originally offered to women undergoing cancer treatment which could compromise their fertility, but it is now increasingly available as an intervention for women who wish to freeze eggs as an insurance policy for future childbearing. I wrote last year about the potential downsides of egg freezing being offered as a corporate perk – would it be another way to bend women to the corporate status quo, rather than looking creatively at more flexible working options for all parents in the workforce? The onus for timing of childbearing and achieving ‘work-life balance’ remains primarily a ‘woman’s issue’ in public talk.

But what if men had biological clocks too? What if not only women see their chances of conception decrease with age? These issues are now being addressed as fertility researchers turn their attention to men’s biology. An article in the Washington Post points out that our knowledge of men’s fertility is years behind our knowledge of women’s, and that a growing body of findings is showing that men’s fertility does decline over time. For example, a man over 45 may take five times as long to conceive as men of 25 or less. And although the risks overall are low, older fathers have higher risks of having children with certain health conditions than their younger counterparts. Shouldn’t this be part of our debate on later parenthood? Perhaps more importantly, shouldn’t this knowledge be shared widely so that couples know more about men’s bodies, and women are no longer exclusively burdened with all of the stress to do with ‘windows’ for conceiving, having attained a reasonable standard of living.

It used to be the case that research information on employment and socio-economic group was collected from men, as they were assumed to be the breadwinner determining the socio-economic group of the rest of the household. This meant we knew little about women’s employment. Similarly, in concentrating on women as the key individuals in fertility statistics, we know less about men’s childbearing behaviour, rates of childlessness and fertility trends over time. We’d no longer accept overlooking women’s economic role, so perhaps it’s time to look even more at men’s role in fertility patterns. We might even find out that they can’t have it all…

Back at a gathering of thirtysomethings, when the talk turns to having children, we should include men in the discussion. As two-earner couples are increasingly the norm, with both partners juggling work and family concerns, it’s high time we changed the conversation.


Why are we waiting?

24 Sep

Politics, the diplomatic service and the law – three establishment professions – have all been in the news regarding their promotion of women.

First came the controversy over the composition of Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet , which drew criticism because the top jobs shadowing ‘great offices of State’ were awarded to men: Shadow Chancellor, Shadow Foreign Secretary and Shadow Home Secretary. Although the Shadow Cabinet is majority female, many expressed dismay that women are in relatively junior posts.

This version of gender balance by numbers, but not status, is a persistent issue. There have been similar criticisms made regarding women on boards, where numerical gender equality has frequently been achieved by offering women non-executive roles rather than the more powerful executive positions.

By contrast, in the middle pages of the Economist (page 35 or behind the paywall), I read that the French diplomatic corps has attained a record share of female ambassadors – one third – and has paid attention to prestige as well as numbers. The current French ambassador to London is a woman, as are strategically important ambassadors in Ukraine and Pakistan. Meanwhile, here in the UK , 19% of ambassadors are women and we have never sent a female ambassador to Washington D.C. or Paris – although we do now have a woman ambassador in Beijing. How have the French transformed the position of women in diplomacy? In 2012 they set a target of 40% senior public offices to be occupied by women by 2018. Here in the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been behind other government departments in terms of senior female appointments, reflecting a longstanding male dominance. The marriage bar was only lifted for female diplomats in 1973. Like senior politicians and lawyers, senior female diplomats are less likely to be married and/or have children than their male counterparts. In recent initiatives, the Foreign Office has addressed issues of work-life balance creatively by offering job-share postings to married diplomats, or by offering neighbouring overseas positions. These are welcome developments, but may not address wider diversity issues for those with spouses in different professions.

Meanwhile over in the law, Lord Sumption, a member of the Supreme Court, has expressed his views regarding gender equality in the judiciary. He is concerned that ‘rushing’ to achieve women’s equality in the judiciary could have ‘appalling consequences’ . A quarter of judges are currently female, and the proportion of women declines the further up the judicial hierarchy you go. Lord Sumption has suggested that the lack of women judges can be explained by women being perhaps less willing to put in the long hours : ‘as a lifestyle choice it’s very hard to quarrel with it’ he says. Analysis of women’s positon in the legal profession here and here suggests that there are issues of professional culture which can affect women, beyond any consideration of more flexible working patterns. Informal networking and mentoring are important for career progression, and are often less accessible and sustainable for women barristers than for men, in a profession full of senior men from a relatively narrow range of backgrounds.

Lord Sumption is reported as suggesting that we should be ‘patient’, and that it could take up to 50 years for there to be equal numbers of male and female judges; in politics we have reached the point where 29% of MPs are women, but it will take a further 50 years to reach parity at current rates of change. In this scenario, I can only quote Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary where ‘patience’ is defined as ‘a mild form of despair disguised as a virtue’.





I’m 99% sure that we can’t all do maternity leave like the 1%

3 Sep

Marissa Mayer has sparked a debate over maternity leave through her announcement that she will be taking only 2 weeks maternity leave when she gives birth in December. She’s the CEO of Yahoo, one of the highest paid executives in the world, in the notoriously male-dominated world of technology companies. When she had her first child, she followed this same path, and raised a few eyebrows soon afterwards by banning remote working for her employees, while installing a nursery next her own office to accommodate her child alongside her professional responsibilities.

Predictably there has been a spate of articles saying that maternity leave is a personal choice for her, which she is exercising for herself, just as a man in her position would; isn’t it sexist to see her differently from a male CEO making the same choices within weeks of becoming a father? I’m not sure it is. It is not sexist to say that it is different to go through the transition to parenthood as the person who actually gives birth and who may breastfeed afterwards, from being the parent who supports this process. Both parents may be equally important to their children, but the physical impact of childbirth is experienced uniquely by women. For many women this is a relatively straightforward and highly rewarding process, but some births are a lot easier to recover from than others, and two weeks recovery before resuming even lightened work duties would not work for every mother. Or for every type of work come to that. Mayer is to be praised for extending Yahoo’s maternity benefits to encompass 16 weeks of paid leave. In a country still without any mandatory parental leave system, this is an important benefit for employees. However, by not taking it herself, Mayer leaves the suggestion that parental leave is for the little people hanging in the air.

And of course, no-one is asking what role her husband will be playing in their presumably joint decision to arrange things this way. Is he taking time off? Is he going to be primary parent while his wife guides her company through a crucial period? Whether he is doing these things or not, the public assumption is that Mayer’s stellar salary will cover the kind of high-quality round-the-clock childcare that most people can only dream of. And it is certainly true that she can afford it.

Parental leave policies facilitate equality and diversity in the workplace. Female workers in tech report feeling compromised and marginalised by the choices for balancing work and family life available in this particular culture, and they often leave. Silicon Valley companies have recently launched a number of high profile parental leave packages, presumably with a view to retain valuable employees. Parental leave should facilitate both sexes in both their careers and their family life. By not being a visible proponent of her company’s maternity leave policies, Mayer underlines the exceptionalism of her position, rather than providing an attainable path for many others.

And this brings us back to the individual choice issue: Marissa Mayer is doing what she is doing because she can. She has a powerful position from which to negotiate terms, she has the support of her board and has put in place an infrastructure to enable her to continue working with her children close at hand, and to cover childcare needs whenever they crop up. Most people are simply not in that position.

Here in the UK, 54,000 women are losing jobs through maternity-related discrimination each year, even in a system where maternity leave is available for most workers. Many professions still suffer from ‘leaky pipelines’ in terms of promoting women to senior levels, and childcare costs are so high both here and in the USA that many families find it simply uneconomic for both parents to carry on working as they might otherwise choose to do. I read a comment in an American article that ‘millenials’ are ‘seeking a solution that works for them, not a one-size-fits-all maternity policy’, a stance which sees Mayer as a great example of what is possible. The problem with this approach is that it does not foster a climate which caters for the needs of many, who take both their working lives and family lives seriously, and who wish to stay off the breadline. It’s not enough to make maternity leave an individualistic lifehack; we need policies in place so that more parents can hack it in the system. In Europe it is often argued that senior managers must visibly buy into flexible working and parental leave plans in order for men to even consider taking them up; if senior women in the USA don’t take up corporate leave packages, we’re left with the same old ‘default male’ models of success for the majority of employees. Is that good enough for us?



Human Writes ….

12 Aug

A few years ago, Bic, the biro makers, were widely ridiculed when they advertised ‘a pen for her’, in pink of course, and apparently suitable for female hands. Now, Bic South Africa has apologised for, and deleted, an advert posted for South African national Women’s Day. It depicted a woman in a suit, smiling to camera, accompanied by the following text:

Look like a girl

Act like a lady

Think like a man

Work like a boss

What could possibly go wrong? … How this caption got past even the vaguest internal monitoring process remains a mystery – the cynic might suggest that Bic put the image out knowing exactly what attention it would garner – but is any publicity really good publicity? And why choose a day normally reserved for celebrating women’s achievements to suggest that anything but womanhood goes?

Because that’s the worst thing about this advert – that ‘girl’ ‘lady’ ‘man’ and ‘boss’ are all fine identities – but ‘woman’? Just not something you can routinely be in your successful life. ‘Woman’ , it would appear, is an attribute you have to cover up with other things in order to get by. I can barely be bothered with the ‘think like a man’ element of this – the element which seems to have garnered most comment – because all the arguments have been repeated so many times it’s tiresome. No, not all men are the same and neither are all women. It’s the other parts of the captioning that make matters even worse. We can’t even look like women or act like women, rather we need to strive for girlishness in appearance and be ladylike in our actions. How could this ever have been seen as an empowering message – as Bic claimed initially was their intention? Since when was looking like a girl empowering for women except in a rather objectifying and ageist way? Since when was acting ‘like a lady’ the passport to empowerment? The Merriam-Webster online definition of ‘ladylike’ is ‘polite and quiet in a way that has traditionally been considered suited to a woman’ – all the better to oppress you with, my dear … As for working like a boss, well the items seem to add up to the fact that this is not something ‘women’ do either.

And perhaps most depressingly of all, this thoughtless image for a Women’s Day campaign has been conjured up by a manufacturer of pens – pens, the very thing we use to communicate our thoughts and express ourselves. Perish the thought that a woman might write something powerful. Would the girlish loops of our handwriting and the ladylike decorum of our letters stand us in good stead? Not so. According to a recent experiment where an author sent the same script out to agents under respectively a man’s and a woman’s name, and got different results – the male bias of the prospective publisher would soon put paid to any silly ideas like that…. We really should know our limits, as drawn by the red line of a Bic biro, no doubt.




Does it matter that there is only one man on the Women and Equalities Select Committee?

5 Jul

A fair few column inches have been devoted to the fact that the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has ended up being entirely male and white. In our era this does look like a failure of representation, especially considering that representation in arts, media and sports could reasonably fall under the remit of that Committee. No wonder New Statesman’s Media Mole declared themselves too depressed to be funny….

Meanwhile, eyelids have not apparently batted at the make-up of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, which contains only one male MP – a newly-elected member of the House. Does this matter? Given the subject of this Committee’s business it is entirely appropriate for women to be in a majority. It would be crazy otherwise – but I can’t help feeling a little disappointed that only one man will be present – and that with the exception of Chair Maria Miller, all of the members are newly elected. I’m sure their credentials are admirable, but it does seem unusual that more seasoned MPs will not sit around this particular table. In the criticised Culture Committee, at least half of members were elected before 2015, and the Women and Equalities Committee is the only one I can find with members drawn exclusively from the latest intake.

The reason why this may be of concern is fear of what one might term ‘pinkbusification’. During the election the Labour Party decided to reconnect with female voters by taking a pink bus around the country to discuss women’s issue. As I wrote at the time, this strategy runs the danger of saying that there is a ‘politics for her’ – somehow separate from the mainstream of hard, manly issues. While the motivation may come from a place of respecting women’s views and experiences, the consequence of having a separate strategy for women may be to sideline their concerns all the more.

As for the Women and Equalities Committee, it would be great to think that it augurs a new commitment to bringing gender and equalities issues to the fore in Parliament. The case for this is made eloquently here by Prof. Sarah Childs, who sees it as an important part of a move towards a more gender-sensitive and publicly-responsive parliament. It is important to remember that the ‘Equalities’ element of the Committee’s work would include areas such as disability, race, sexuality and class inequalities, all of which affect men as well as women.

But by having no established male MPs on the committee it could be read that inequalities are not a big concern for the most powerful group in the land – the stale, male, pale majority of Parliament itself. That could potentially be an excuse to say ‘they’ have a Committee to address their concerns, rather than seeing the inequalities of life chances all around us as a crucial and central concern of those in power.

Of course as a scrutiny body the Women and Equalities Committee will have the same potential to influence as any other Committee – and there is no reason why its members will not do an excellent job. But the gender make-up of these Committees does say something of how individual political issues are viewed in Westminster and beyond. Of seven Committees (apart from Culture) where full membership has been announced, women are in the majority in Education and Women and Equalities, while Defence, Justice, Scottish Affairs, Northern Ireland, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs are all predominantly male- although the last has a female Chair. Women make up 22% of Select Committee Chairs, a little lower than female representation in Parliament which now stands at 29%. We are not yet in a world where gender goes unnoticed, or where the hierarchy of importance given to different issues is gender neutral. In the meantime it would be good to think that women and equalities really matter to the big beasts in politics – most of whom are still middle-aged men.






Scientists, we have a problem …

11 Jun

The comments of Sir Tim Hunt, Nobel laureate, at a lunch function at a science journalism conference in South Korea, have raised a storm of comment in response. Just in case you have missed his bon mots, he has asserted that the ‘trouble’ with ‘girls’ in the lab is that ‘you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them they cry’. Yes, he did say that, and then he kind of apologised, saying it was ‘joke’ but also that he did mean what he said. You see, ‘emotional entanglements’ (!) ‘disrupt’ science and he felt the need to underline that. His solution? Sex-segregated labs, so that men would not be distracted by women. At this point you do wish he was kidding. A half-hearted apology for saying ‘silly’ things in a room full of female journalists does not quite cut it.

As other commentators have already pointed out, a saving grace of the incident may be that it has laid bare an open secret. When it comes to sexism, science hierarchies have unfortunate form. A smattering of female Nobel laureates, this year’s Field medal in mathematics, and the exposure of cases where awards were given to men when it was women in the lab who deserved the credit, do plenty to disabuse any notion that what Hunt might refer to as ‘the fairer sex’ are not up to scientific excellence. But the persistent scarcity of women in science – especially in the highest echelons – tells its own story. Only 17% of professors in STEM in the UK are female. The response is often that this simply reflects the fact that women are less likely to study sciences and to proceed into the profession. This is true, but not to the extent that the low figures suggest.

The Royal Society, of which Hunt is a Fellow, has moved to distance itself from Hunt’s comments, saying that ‘science needs women’, but falling short in some eyes of repudiation of his remarks. The Society has had its own issues, having seen a fall in the number of Fellowships awarded to women under some recent schemes. Indeed, a recent investigation was launched to understand why only 2 of 43 early career University Research Fellowships were awarded to women in the last round – in previous years up to a third of awards went to women. The investigation was not able to pinpoint particular systemic reasons for the low number of awards to women, but a suite of initiatives to promote fellowships more actively to women scientists, and to train selection panels in issues relating to bias has been put in place. As I have blogged previously, unconscious bias has been identified – through systematic research no less – as an issue in recruitment and retention of scientists.

Perhaps Tim Hunt’s outburst might concentrate the collective mind on attitudes which may still affect women in science. After all, even Stephen Hawking declared women a ‘mystery’. It is incumbent on scientists now to ensure that the ‘problem’ of women in science is seen as a problem in the parts of the professional hierarchy, and not of women. Hunt’s idea that a ‘solution’ to the ‘distractions’ of women is to segregate them into labs of their own, is perhaps the most damaging of all. Women are not ‘the other’ – we are people working on equal terms to solve the problems of the world. And if that is not already actually the case, it is old men of science who have the problem.





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